The latest proposal for the major overhaul of Mt. Auburn Street was unveiled by traffic engineers at Monday night’s Public Works subcommittee meeting, and they were largely met with skepticism and disappointment.
The first detailed draft of what the redesigned Mt. Auburn Street could or would look like was presented in June by the traffic engineers from WorldTech Engineering. It included removal of lanes, called a “road diet” in some areas and added bike lanes along the roadway.
Monday night’s presentation included recommendations that had fewer areas where the road diet would be used and fewer areas with dedicated bike lanes.
Project designers have split the road into four sections (from West to East):
Patten Street to Walnut Street
Walnut Street to Dexter Avenue
Dexter Avenue to Arlington Street (Coolidge Square)
Arlington Street to the Cambridge line
The least amount of change would be seen in the area closest to Watertown Square where two-lanes each way is proposed to be kept, and no dedicated bike lanes. The engineers proposed having “share the roadway” arrows painted on the road to show where bikes can go.
The Walnut to Dexter section would have some major changes, including narrowing to one lane of traffic each way, adding left turn “pockets” for a majority of un-signaled intersections. A new traffic light has been proposed at Boylston Street to help with traffic and walkers coming from Hosmer School.
The proposal for Coolidge Square (Dexter to Arlington) has not been completed by engineers. They plan a meeting in January focusing just on that section where a map of the entire stretch will be rolled out so people can see the proposal and give detailed comments and questions. Engineers did note that businesses in the area need a place for trucks to unload, that the sidewalks are narrow in some places due to trees and utility poles, and that parking stalls need to be 8 feet wide because it is zoned as a limited business district.
Engineers are also still working on design of the section from Arlington to the Cambridge line. The area is wider than other sections and has fewer driveways so it was considered for a separated bike lane (up on sidewalk level) on both sides. This will not work, but they may have separated bike lane on one side and one on the street level on the other. They also are considering making a “bus stop island” in front of Tufts Health Plan where a bike lane would pass behind the bus stop shelter.
Bike Lanes and Pedestrians
The June meeting was a joint meeting with the Public Works Committee and the Bicycle and Pedestrian Committee, and engineers included a lot of details about bike lane options. This continued in Monday’s meeting.
Three types of bike lanes were considered:
Separated – where the bike lane is at the level with the sidewalk and separated from the traffic and parking
Protected – where bicycles travel on street level, but the lane is protected from traffic by the row of parked cars. It would also be right next to the curb.
Buffered – which has the bicycles on the street level between the parked cars and traffic. Engineers proposed having 2-foot painted buffers between both the traffic and the parked cars.
Separated bike lanes are only being considered for one side of the road in the Arlington Street to the Cambridge line section. The other side would be a buffered bike lane.
Buffered bike lanes have been proposed for the north and south sides of the Walnut to Dexter section. There would be a 2-foot buffer on both sides on the south side, and on the north side, where there is no parking so there would be a buffer between traffic and the curb would be on the other side.
No bike lanes have been proposed from Patten to Walnut, and the Coolidge Square section is still being designed.
Protected bike lanes were largely ruled out because there are issues with bicycles being visible to drivers because they are behind parked cars, and also because it would not leave space for cars to pull over for emergency vehicles or to go around a stalled bus or accident.
Bumpouts, where the sidewalk is pushed further into the road, have been proposed at intersections to allow pedestrians to cross more easily and safely.
Concerns from Council and Public
Several residents said they did not think that Mt. Auburn Street could handle all the traffic it has, plus the addition of vehicles from the new apartments in town if the number of lanes is reduced.
Mohammad Tahmili, who owns Tabrizi Bakery in Watertown Square, said it can take 45 minutes to get from the Mass Pike to the Square if he arrives at 8:30 a.m. He fears this will get worse with a road diet.
Mike Athanas, who owns The W Pizza, echoed his concerns.
“I am disappointed to see one lane of traffic in some ares,” Athanas said. “Traffic is currently tremendous.”
The project has been compared to the redesign of Belmont Street/Trapelo Road, which narrowed some areas to one lane each way and added bumpouts at intersections. Athanas said that he didn’t like that project, and said it has been a problem for property owners with a bumpouts in front because it means shoveling a much wider sidewalk.
State Sen. Will Brownsberger said he worked on the Belmont/Trapelo project first as a Belmont Selectman and then as a State Rep. and Senator. He said he likes how it turned out.
“I am a user of Trapelo/Belmont. I live on a side street and drive it from time to time, I bike it frequently, I walk it and I take the bus on it,” Brownsberger said. “Overall, I think it is vastly improved.”
The road diet will only be used if it can handle 17,000 cars a day, plus 5,000 bus passengers, said Kris Surette of WorldTech. The traffic measured in 2010 showed most major intersections on Mt. Auburn Street well in excess of 17,000. Traffic engineers are also including traffic anticipated to come from the new apartments and developments in Watertown.
Erica Dorenkamp, who lives near Hosmer School, said she welcomes reducing the roadway to one lane each way.
“It would slow traffic down,” Dorenkamp said. “It is scary to ride a bike for me, and there is no way I would let kids bike on it.”
Tony Physic, a Watertown Police officer who was giving his personal thoughts, said he worries about emergency vehicles getting by if there are only one lane each way.
“People are afraid to go into bike lanes, so (police and fire vehicles) have to get into oncoming traffic to go around,” Physic said.
Mal Atamian, who owns a business in Coolidge Square, said the area needs parking and to maintain two lanes each way because many businesses do not have a loading area in the back so trucks must stop on Mt. Auburn Street.
Councilor Aaron Dushku, who chairs the Public Works Committee, said that it is not safe to bike on Mt. Auburn Street, and he was disappointed to see that the separated bike lanes will not be added.
Councilor Lisa Feltner, who represents District B – which includes the part of Mt. Auburn Street closer to Watertown Square, said she has many problems with the design. She said it is not being designed in conjunction with other major projects, such as the Watertown Square redesign and the Arsenal Street Corridor project.
“Traffic is being shoved onto Irving Street. Irving seems to be the solution for everything,” Feltner said. “I am concerned about that and this is not a holistic look at Watertown Square.”
Feltner added that she lives on a side street off Mt. Auburn right near the Square and it is tough to get in and out already, and there is a proposal to make Parker Street one way which would make it harder to get out of that neighborhood.
In addition, she is concerned about a proposal to remove parking from Mt. Auburn Street in front of businesses between Phillips Street to Chester Street, which is across from where Common Street hits Mt. Auburn. Side streets are already overwhelmed by people parking on their street, Feltner said.
Councilor Tony Palomba said he is concerned about the direction of the project, and worries that it will not be able to handle the “exploding development” in Watertown.
“I’m taking a step back on this project,” Palmoba said. “There seem to be significant issues that need to be addressed.”
Dushku said he believes the designers should keep working and take into account the comments from the meeting and left on the project website.
“I don’t think we should hold up the project,” Dushku said. “(Designers) should keep doing what they are doing. They will focus on Coolidge Square next.”
The meeting on Coolidge Square will take place in January, and a draft plan will be put up on the Mount Auburn Street Project website in February and a more informal, “open house” meeting will be held in February or March to discuss the draft.
The goal of the town is to get the project on the State’s transportation project list in Fiscal Year 2022.
Comments on the Mount Auburn Street Project can be left here: https://mountauburnstreet.com/stay-in-touch/
Project documents can be found here: https://mountauburnstreet.com/documents/
See previous stories on the project: